Udo Kier's life on the dark side

Cult star on playing evil, Fassbinder, Von Trier and Van Sant.

by Richard Mowe

Udo Kier in My Own Private Idaho
Udo Kier in My Own Private Idaho
Once the guests for the dinner party in one of Karlovy Vary’s traditional hostelries has been assembled surprise invitee Udo Kier (German-born veteran of more than 200 films) makes his entrance leading a rousing chorus of happy birthday and bearing a lily stem.

The recipient is Monica Catalina of the Italian film organisation Cinecittà Luce for whom Eva Zaoralova, one of Karlovy Vary’s luminaries, is hosting the birthday soirée.

Udo Kier: 'Women seemed to like my evil side.'
Udo Kier: 'Women seemed to like my evil side.' Photo: Film Servis Karlovy Vary
Kier’s sense of timing has always been impeccable, regaling the dinner party with tales of Cinecittà’s hey day, encounters with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, living with Rainer Werner Fassbinder and his close friendship with Lars Von Trier.

He was last in Karlovy Vary in 2003 with Von Trier for Dogville. Gus Van Sant was also among the guests with his film Elephant, they met, and as serendipity would have it he persuaded Kier to come and live in the States and to make My Own Private Idaho. He has called Palm Springs home for more than two decades and lives in a converted library, which gives him enough space to hang his collection of arts works from the likes of Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Robert Mapplethorpe.

He is not averse to doing the odd populist excursion such as Jim Carrey's Ace Ventura and End Of Days, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, but his natural inclinations lie with independent directors and upcoming talent. He is in Karlovy Vary for its 50th edition with two new films: The Forbidden Room by Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson (a distorted vision of an impassioned film-goer of 1930 falling asleep in a cinema and dreaming surreal visions of films of the era) and Zero from Hungarian Gyula Nemes (centred on a young man in his thirties who turns his life around by becoming a forest beekeeper whose bees are chased away and killed by the proximity of mobile phone masts).

In Zero, Kier embraces his inner baddie by incarnating the owner of the mobile phone intruder. “Many people do not realise that bees are dying and when they die so will we because there will be nothing left to eat,” he said.

He is happy on the dark side. “It is always fun,” he suggests “because most of the time we are supposed to be good and we’re not to allowed to be bad. Women seemed to like my evil side. I’ve played Hitler three times but in comedies and I played a Nazi in Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse.”

Chance encounters have played a big part in Kier ascendancy. As a teenager he met director Paul Morrissey on a flight, fell in to conversation and gave him his contact number. Later, he got a call offering him a role in Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein in an early form of 3D for producer Carlo Ponti, which was followed by Dracula. Both were shot back to back at the Roman studios founded by Mussolini in 1937. Kier recalls his favourite line: “I need the blood of virgins to live …” The reason he played Dracula in a wheelchair was because he had gone a diet for the role, lost too much weight and therefore the power to perambulate. “That’s why I needed the blood of virgins,” he said.

He has fond memories of working at Cinecittà, where the likes of Fellini and Visconti could be working on neighbouring stages and the canteen would be filled with big busted “beautiful women and very skinny men.”

The young Udo Kier as he appeared in Mark of the Devil in 1970
The young Udo Kier as he appeared in Mark of the Devil in 1970
His first meeting with Rainer Werner Fassbinder also was by chance. They met in a bar in Berlin frequented by truck drivers, secretaries and “the first transvestites”, fell into conversations and worked and lived together for several years. Kier’s still arresting blue eyes cloud over when he touches on Fassbinder’s drug-fuelled early demise.

Von Trier and he are kindred spirits. He has become godfather to one of his children and has worked regularly with him from his TV film Medea to Dogville and beyond.

The role that set him on the road was in Mark Of The Devil in 1970, directed by Michael Armstrong. “I played Count Christian von Meruh, a witch hunter apprentice to Lord Cumberland, who was played by Herbert Lom. He met a grisly end …” Later this year he is due to reprise his role of Wolfgang Korzfleisch in Iron Sky The Coming Race, a dark science fiction comedy inspired by conspiracy theories. It is a sequel to the 2012 cult hit Iron Sky and will include both new and familiar characters.

After another rousing chorus of Happy Birthday Kier, 70, is ready to party. As we leave he embraces me warmly and disappears in to the night. “We will meet again,” he smiles over his shoulder.

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